Research adds 10,000 years to human life in the Flinders Ranges

The Diprotodon optatum, the largest of the extinct pre-historic marsupials, was about the size of a rhino.

Human settlement in Australia’s arid interior has been reset to about 50,000 years ago – almost 10,000 years earlier than previously reported, based on new archaeological evidence published online in Nature this week.

Remains found in the remote northern area of the Flinders Ranges of South Australia suggests that people settled in the southern parts of the arid interior within a few millennia of arriving on the continent. The paper shows that they developed key technologies and cultural practices much earlier than previously thought for Australia and Southeast Asia.

The research, led by La Trobe University archaeologist Giles Hamm and colleagues including Flinders University paleaontologists, sees a review of the timing of both settlement of the continent’s arid interior and the development of technologically innovative material culture (such as relatively advanced stone tools), along with the degree to which they interacted with now-extinct giant animals (megafauna).

diprotodon-arid-interior-mapCo-authors in the paper, Flinders megafauna experts Professor Gavin Prideaux and Associate Professor Trevor Worthy, played a part in analysing materials such as animal bones and eggshell found at the site, now one of the earliest known sites for human occupation of Australia’s arid interior.

The material discovered during an excavation at Warratyi rock shelter in the Flinders Ranges in Adnyamathanha country, 550km north of Adelaide, shows that humans occupied the site from 49,000 to 46,000 years ago and that objects recovered from the various layers of sediment represent the earliest-known use in Australia of various notable technologies.

These include worked bone tools (40,000-38,000 years ago), backed stone tools (30,000-24,000 years ago), and the use as pigments of red ochre (49,000-46,000 years ago) and gypsum (40,000-33,000 years ago).

The authors also describe evidence of human co-existence with Diprotodon optatum, the largest-known wombat-like marsupial, and the giant bird Genyornis newtoni. They note this discovery is the only reliably dated, well-stratified record of extinct Australian megafauna associated with artefacts older than 46,000 years, and the clearest evidence yet for their interaction with humans.

Research leader Giles Hamm at the Flinders Ranges site.

Professor Prideaux told an SA Museum AusSMC briefing that the research countered scientific arguments that climate change probably caused the extinction of Australia’s megafauna. “Humans evidently lived along side these animals and hunted them, so the idea that there wasn’t any interaction between people and these animals is put to bed now by the laboratory evidence,” he said.

Associate Professor Worthy says: “This research removes any doubt that humans reached the furthest and most remote areas of Australia soon after arrival, about 50,000 years ago, occupying all areas of the aridity spectrum, and so leaving no animals or communities unaffected by their presence.”

Scientists at the University of Adelaide used dating techniques such as single-grain optical dating of quartz, and radiocarbon (14C) dating of hearth charcoal and bird eggshells.

Cultural innovation and megafauna interaction in the early settlement of arid Australia

DOI: 10.1038/nature20125

Giles Hamm1, Peter Mitchell2, Lee J. Arnold3, Gavin J. Prideaux4, Daniele Questiaux5, Nigel A. Spooner56, Vladimir A. Levchenko7, Elizabeth C. Foley1, Trevor H. Worthy4, Birgitta Stephenson8, Vincent Coulthard9, Clifford Coulthard9, Sophia Wilton9, Duncan Johnston9.

1Department of Archaeology and History, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia 2Geomorphic Consultant Gladesville, New South Wales, Australia 3School of Physical Sciences, the Environment Institute, and the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia 4School of Biological Sciences, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia 5Institute of Photonics and Advanced Sensing, School of Physical Sciences, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia 6Defence Science and Technology Group, Edinburgh, South Australia, Australia 7Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Lucas Heights, New South Wales, Australia 8In the Groove Analysis Pty Ltd, Adjunct Research Fellow, School of Social Sciences, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland, Australia 9Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association, Port Augusta, South Australia, Australia

Posted in
College of Science and Engineering Corporate Engage International News Research Students Sustainability